RAPID RIVER (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday he will continue exempting motor carriers and drivers hauling propane from hours-of-service regulations to help ease a shortage of the heating fuel brought on by heavy demand during an abnormally cold winter.
Michigan is among more than 30 states that have declared propane energy emergencies as supplies hit their lowest level ever during the second week of January.
"The health and safety of our residents is most important, and I've directed relevant agencies to work with those who have been affected by the shortage and offer assistance and available resources until propane levels are restored," Snyder said.
State officials said during a conference call the shortage is particularly acute in northern Michigan. Propane inventories in the Upper Peninsula are 46 percent below last year's levels and are expected to remain tight, the governor's office said, although the situation there improved slightly this week as a facility in Rapid River went back online after a new pump was installed.
Problems that created the shortfall include heavy demand caused by the cold weather and a late harvest that required propane for drying grain, as well as transportation issues such as icy roads, heavy snowfall, rail line problems and pipeline maintenance.
None are unusual by themselves, but they created a snowball effect by happening together, said John Quackenbush, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission.
"It's been relentless. There hasn't been a letup," he said.
In addition to seeking federal approval for continuing the hours-of-service waiver for propane haulers, Snyder said his administration will ask the U.S. Department of Transportation to coordinate weight restriction exemptions between states during the shortage.
People needing help paying heating bills can apply for emergency relief with the state Department of Human Services. By dialing 211, they can be directed to the nearest office location providing Michigan Energy Assistance Program aid, spokesman Dave Akerly said. Officials said there had been no reports of people running out of fuel, despite the low supplies.
Propane costs have spiked during the shortage, averaging $3.64 a gallon - up from $2.04 a year ago, said Steve Arwood, director of the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. Rates in some places have reached $5.60 per gallon and there have been anecdotal reports of prices exceeding $6, he said.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette said customers who suspect price gouging should contact his office's Consumer Protection Division.
"Michigan families struggling with rising heating costs and the bitter cold should not have to worry about whether they are paying a fair price for propane," Schuette said.
But officials said there had been no confirmed cases of gouging. At least some of the spike apparently results from Michigan distributors passing along higher prices they've been charged for the fuel and for transporting it from greater distances, Quackenbush said.